Exploring the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle. Walking along the remnants of the graffiti-covered Berlin Wall. Sipping Bavaria’s rich beer-brewing heritage. Admiring beautiful Baroque architecture in Dresden. No matter where you are travelling in Germany, knowing some essential German phrases can help your trip run smoother – and make a good impression on the locals too.
Savvy travellers will probably already know basic German words, and they’re pretty easy to pick up if you don’t. Try hallo (hello), guten tag (good day), auf wiedersehen (goodbye), danke (thank you), bitte (please), ja (yes) and nein (no). And having a few numbers under your belt – eins (one), zwei (two), drei (three) – should come in handy when buying tickets. Or beer, of course.
Taking you (a little) beyond the basic German words you need to know, we’ve pulled together some essential German phrases that are incredibly useful for travellers to have in their back pocket. Best of all, if you learn these you’ll be all set for trips to Austria and Switzerland too. Win, win, win.
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Few things immerse you in a destination quite like striking up a conversation with locals. Asking “how are you?” is a brilliant way to start. If they ask back, you can reply “mir geht’s gut”, meaning “I am fine”. And if the conversation’s going really well, why not introduce yourself? Simply say “Ich heiße…” (I am called…) before your name, and ask “Wie heißt du?” to find out someone else’s.
Remember: when you come across the ß (called an eszett, a character unique to the German language), simply pronounce it like “s”, as you would in the English “see”.
No matter what language you’re speaking, it’s good to have good manners. Just say “entschuldigung” (excuse me) to get the attention of hotel receptionists, ticket officers and waiters, or perhaps people who might look like they know the directions you need.
Incorporate this into a longer sentence “Entschuldigen sie, ist dies… ?” (excuse me, is this…?) when you’re on public transport and unsure where to get off.
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Wo ist… ?
Where is…? An essential phrase for explorers. Simply add the name of your intended destination to the end. If you’re in Berlin, for instance, that could be the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), Berliner Fernsehturm (Berlin Television Tower) or Museumsinsel (Museum Island). More common places include the “Bahnhof” (train station), “Flughafen” (airport), “stadtzentrum” (city centre) and “supermarkt” (supermarket). Helpfully, “taxi” and “bank” are the same in German and English.
In this case, asking “zeigen sie mir das bitte auf der Karte?” (can you show me on the map?) can be a more foolproof way of getting where you want to go.
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Einmal nach… bitte
Germany’s public transport is among the world’s best, and a handful of basic german phrases can help you navigate the various transport systems. To ask for a ticket: “Einmal/ zweimal nach… bitte”, meaning “one ticket/ two tickets to (your destination) please”. Follow up with “was kostet das?” (how much is it?) and “wann fährt er ab?” (when does it leave?) and you’ll get from A to B in no time. (Hopefully.)
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Ich hätte gerne…
Tucking into the culinary culture of a country is one of the best ways to get a real taste of your destination. Instead of just smiling and pointing at the menu – ask “kann ich bitte die Speisekarte haben? (can I have the menu, please?) if you don’t already have one – simply add “Ich hätte gerne” (I would like) before the name of your preferred food, be it bratwurst (sausage), spätzle (egg noodles), kartoffelkloesse (potato dumplings) or schweininshaxe, a slow-roasted pork knuckle – best enjoyed with a local beer on the side. Sehr lekker! (Very tasty!)
Can’t decide what to order? Ask: “Was empfehlen sie?” (what do you recommend?).
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As the world’s largest beer festival, Oktoberfest is a huge draw for travellers and locals every autumn (usually late Steptember or early October), but beer is a big part of German culture year-round. These are some German words you need to know: “Prost!” (cheers!); “maß”, a litre glass jug of beer; and “Eins, Zwei, Drei, G’suffa!”, meaning “one, two, three, drink!”. You’ll probably want a few brezeln (pretzels) to soak up all that beer too.
This is a time when traditional clothing comes out the wardrobe. Expect to see the dirndl, a peasant-style pinafore, and lederhosen, leather trousers or shorts – or perhaps even get some to wear yourself.
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Ich esse kein(e)…
A less fun entry on this list, but necessary for any traveller with special dietary requirements. “Ich esse kein(e)…” translates as “I don’t eat… “. Follow up with “nüsse” (nuts), “milchproductke” (dairy) or “fleisch” (meat) as appropriate. “Gluten” is the same as in English, and you can explain that you are “vegetarier(in)” (vegetarian, adding the ‘in’ for female), “veganerin vegan or have “die Zöliakie” (coeliac disease).
Die Rechnung, bitte
The bill, please. An essential ending to any meal. “Kann ich zahlen?” (can I pay?) is a less formal way of asking. And “Entschldigung, wo ist die Toilette” (Excuse me, where is the toilet?) might also come in handy after all those beers.
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Was kostet das?
It’s inevitable you’ll end up parting with a few euros in shops, whether that’s on travel basics or souvenirs for yourself, and friends and family back home – especially if you visit a “weihnachtsmarkt” (Christmas market). “Nur schauen” (just looking); “darf ich mit Bargeld bezahlen?” (may I pay with cash?); “darf ich mit Kreditkarte bezahlen?” (may I pay with credit card?); and the aforementioned “was kostet das?” (how much is it?) should all be useful here.
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Ich brauche einen Arzt
We sincerely hope you don’t have to use them, but if anything goes awry, “ich brauche einen Arzt” (I need to see a doctor) or “fahren sie mich bitte zum Krankenhaus” (take me to the hospital) are handy for the linguistic arsenal. Simply “Krankenhaus” should do the job in an emergency. Consider it the word equivalent of the traveller’s first aid kit.
Sprechen sie English?
Unless you’re fluent, there will, of course, be times when you reach the limits of your German language skills. In that case, ask “sprechen sie English?” (do you speak English?). There’s a good chance the answer will be yes; more than half of the people in Germany speak English, and more still in areas popular with travellers, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich.
In this conversation, it might be worth adding “Ich verstehe nicht”, meaning I don’t understand, or “Ich spreche nicht gut Deutsch” (I do not speak German very well).
What words have you found useful when travelling in Germany? Anything other phrases you’d like to know? Let us know in the comments.